Age of Innocence
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The Age of Innocence is a novel written by Edith Wharton that was published in 1920. The novel follows the lives and love triangle of the following characters:
- Newland Archer
- May Welland-Archer
- Countess Ellen Olenska
Although Newland realizes that he has fallen in love with Countess Ellen Olenska, he remains loyal to his finance May and proceeds with the marriage. Twenty-five years later, May has passed and their three children have grown. Newland also has a second chance of love with Countess Ellen Olenska. After arranging a meeting in France with the Countess, Newland changes his mind and decides to remain loyal to his deceased wife. Newland makes the decision to send his son in his place to explain his absence. One of the literary themes contained in the book is the struggle between desire and what is right for all parties involved. Another theme contained in the book is the power and influence of peers and social classes.
In 1993, a movie directed by Martin Scorsese and based off of Wharton's novel was released. This movie starred Winona Ryder, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Daniel Day-Lewis. Unlike many television and film adaptions of books, the movie Age of Innocence was strikingly similar to the original novel. The film received rave reviews from critics and several accolades. These accolades consisted of an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, a British Academy Film Award, and a National Board Review Award.
The Age of Innocence is considered one of the best books of all time, listed as number 58 on the New York Times' best 100 books of the 20th century.What can make a love story written in the early part of the last century still relevant and engaging for readers today?It is Wharton's depiction of the struggle between society's pressures and the individual's desires that are echoed in The Age of Innocence and still affect love and relationships today.
The struggle in The Age of Innocence focuses around Newland Archer's societal pressure to adhere to his responsibility to May Welland and his personal desire to have a relationship with Ellen Oleska, who is outside of his societal "circle". Newland's relationship with May Welland is loveless, first in their courtship and finally in their marriage, but adheres to the expectations of Newland's social class. Countess Oleska is Newland's passion, but she is unattainable, first because she is married and second because she is above his social ranking. In the final dinner scene in The Age of Innocence, Newland realizes not only has his social status prevented a realistic union between himself and Countess Oleska, but his peers have in fact plotted against him to permanently separate him from Oleska. All of this secret plotting occurred to preserve the social order; Newland's marriage to May Welland was proper and acceptable, so his peers sought to preserve that relationship even if it meant the denial of Newland's personal desires.
Truly, The Age of Innocence represents the basic conflict of man versus society. Newland is struggling against society's expectations to fulfill his own ambitions. Specifically, he was fighting against accepting his position and the associated expectations and following his heart. Unfortunately, Edith Wharton doesn't paint a bright opportunity for following desires. In the end, Newland and Oleska's relationship cannot continue because the strict societal standards in the early 20th century cannot allow it to continue.
Although much of The Age of Innocence focuses on Archer Newland, the women depicted in the book should not be ignored. Ellen Oleska is portrayed as almost a fantasy woman. Although Newland is obsessively in love with her, she is portrayed mostly through his fantasy. "She seems to be drawn from Anna Karenina, but she has none of Anna's elating and heartrending actuality". May Welland, in contrast, is the harsh reminder of Newland's responsibility and social position. She represents his social binds, and traps him into a loveless marriage (Malcolm). Thus, the real influences of society on Newland are most strongly represented through the women most strongly in his life: Countess Oleska as personal freedom and May Welland as social responsibility.